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Uber’s new legal chief warns staff not to spy on rivals

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Message comes as ride-hailing app faces allegations of aggressive competitive practices


Uber’s new chief legal officer has told the ride-hailing app’s security staff to stop spying on the company’s competitors, after allegations of the aggressive competitive business practices were revealed in court this week.

The ultimatum from Tony West comes as Uber’s new leadership struggles to break with the company’s scandal-hit past amid damaging new revelations that have raised questions over its business ethics and overshadowed the closing stages of a SoftBank-led investment deal.

“I’m learning about practices we followed here in the past that are simply unacceptable,” wrote Mr West, who took up the post last week. “The data breach and human surveillance are the two biggest issues I’ve learnt about in my short time here.”

If “anyone is working on any kind of competitive intelligence project that involves the surveillance of individuals, stop it now”, read the email, first reported by Recode. Mr West added he had not yet seen evidence the tactics were illegal.

Mr West’s email was sent to staff the day after a San Francisco courtroom heard explosive allegations from Richard Jacobs, a former Uber manager for global intelligence. Mr Jacobs testified that he found Uber’s approach to collecting data on competitors “overly aggressive and invasive and inappropriate”.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new chief executive who took over in September, is trying to reshape the company’s culture under the slogan “we do the right thing, period”. This follows a run of scandals including the ouster in June of Uber’s former chief executive Travis Kalanick.

Mr Khosrowshahi forwarded Mr West’s memo to Uber’s entire staff on Wednesday. “The news that we failed to disclose a significant data breach, and that we showed poor judgment in our approach to competitors and our use of ephemeral communication for business purposes, has hurt the company just when we are beginning to turn the page,” Mr Khosrowshahi wrote.

The legal battles have also hit the company’s bottom line, and Uber’s losses widened to $1.5bn in the third quarter on generally accepted accounting principles.

A letter to Uber sent by the lawyer of Mr Jacobs this May alleges that the company’s intelligence unit “conducted unauthorised surveillance, including unauthorised recording of private conversations against executives from competitor firms, such as Didi Chuxing . . . and against its own employees and contractors at the Autonomous Technologies Group in Pittsburgh”.

The letter came to light as part of a lawsuit in which Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, has accused Uber of stealing trade secrets. Uber denies that allegation.

Although Nicholas Gicinto, manager of the intelligence-gathering Strategic Services Group, testified this week there was “very little truth” in the Jacobs letter, he admitted that Uber had conducted surveillance “that the people [they] were surveilling didn’t know about”.

Angela Padilla, Uber’s deputy general counsel, also argued in court that Mr Jacobs was a disgruntled former employee who had made “extortionist” demands for money.